November 06, 1995 12:00 PM

FOR STEWART EVANS, A BRITISH POLICEMAN and avid collector of classic crime memorabilia, the deal seemed irresistible: In early 1993, an antiquarian book dealer who was shutting down his shop offered Evans a chance to buy a stack of old letters concerning the notorious Jack the Ripper murders, which had horrified London in the 1880s. “He told me he had four letters about the Ripper written to George R. Sims, a Victorian journalist,” recalls Evans, 46, an officer in Suffolk, a county northeast of London. Since Sims often wrote about crime, “I thought at the very least they’d be interesting,” says Evans.

So they were. Evans believes that one of the letters, which were written in response to Sims’s newspaper articles on the Ripper, may help solve one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of crime—the Ripper’s identity. According to Evans, who collaborated on a book on the subject, a 1913 letter to Sims from Chief Inspector J. G. Littlechild—head of Scotland Yard’s Secret Department during the Ripper years—points the finger at one Francis Tumblety, a homeopathic physician raised in Rochester, N.Y. Or in Littlechild’s words, “an American quack named Tumblety.”

“I’ve been interested in Jack the Ripper for all these years and had never seen [Tumblety’s] name before,” says Evans, whose fascination with the Ripper dates from when he was 7 and saw a Madame Tussaud’s exhibit on the killer. In his letter, Littlechild identified Tumblety as “a very likely” suspect and “a frequent visitor to London [who was] on these occasions constantly brought under the notice of police, there being a large dossier concerning him at Scotland Yard.”

Evans and coauthor Paul Gainey, a press officer for the Suffolk police, launched a 10-month investigation. “I knew straightaway it was a fantastic story,” says Gainey. The pair learned that Tumblety, born in Canada, was the 11th child of Irish immigrant parents. Although he never attended medical school, he passed himself off as a doctor and traveled the U.S. and Europe hawking his snake-oil cures. Tumblety visited London in 1888; the murders took place from August to November of that year. What Evans and Gainey found went into The Lodger, a 275-page book, published in Britain in August, exploring the links between Tumblety and the Ripper murders.

Those links were not easy to uncover. Although Evans was already an expert on the killings—in which as many as six prostitutes were disemboweled, their sexual and other internal organs removed with surgical precision—he once again began poring through copies of the original police records, hunting for clues that might point to Tumblety. Meanwhile, Gainey, 30, a journalist for eight years before joining the police, explored Tumblety’s U.S. connections. An early stop was the New York Public Library, where Gainey scrolled through microfilm of newspapers from the time of the killings. “I almost fell off the blooming chair when I saw his name on the front page of the New York World,” he recalls. The newspaper reported that Scotland Yard had been suspicious enough of Tumblety to call him in for questioning in the Ripper murders but had found insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

Tumblety, who supported himself in London by selling his elixirs, had been charged in November of 1888 under a broad sexual crimes act that banned, among other things, threatening or using violence against a prostitute. Although the exact charge wasn’t detailed, the articles quoted American acquaintances of Tumblety’s talking about his hatred of women. “It was incredible what was in those articles,” says Gainey. “Someone referred to his wife being a prostitute, which probably explained why he loathed prostitutes later, and there was talk about an anatomical collection of wombs he kept at his home. The police in England would have been completely unaware of those things.”

After the arrest, Tumblety jumped bail and fled to France, then the U.S. “There were no more Ripper murders after that,” says Evans. While Gainey was in the U.S., he also went to St. Louis, where Tumblety died of a heart condition at age 70 in 1903. At the probate court there, Gainey thumbed through Tumblety’s own papers. “I was given a bundle covered in dust and wrapped in brown parchment,” says Gainey. “Inside was his will, which hadn’t been touched for 100 years. That was the biggest thrill for me, thinking to myself, ‘I’m holding a document that Jack the Ripper has held.’ ”

Ripper experts, however, are withholding judgment on Evans and Gainey’s discoveries. “Tumblety’s an interesting new suspect, but we need more evidence,” says Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper. Even though Gainey and Evans are convinced they’ve found their man, they plan to continue their investigation. “The name Jack the Ripper grips you,” says Evans. “Everyone who gets into the subject wants to know all there is about it.”

CYNTHIA SANZ

LETA KEENS in Ipswich, England

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